In a recent reflection on the world of political history in Britain, Steven Fielding observed that historians have developed a field that is skewed towards the Left even in a country where the right-wing of the political spectrum is more electorally successful. There is an oft-stated, but I think little absorbed, statement that reminds us that the Conservative and Unionist Party (aka the Tories) are the most successful political party in British history. If there is some literature on the Conservatives in Scotland and England (and more generally Britain), the literature is rather stunted in the Welsh context, amounting to a handful of books, a few PhDs, and some articles of varying quality. At present, the historians most closely identified with Conservative Party histories in Wales are Matthew Cragoe of the University of Lincoln and Sam Blaxland, a doctoral student at Swansea University. Their work is, however, focused on particular periods: Cragoe on the nineteenth century and Blaxland on the period after 1945. This leaves the long era of Liberal and Labour dominance, between 1868 and 1945, largely untouched – a chapter by Felix Aubel being something of a exception. Today’s blog offers some reflections on the Conservatives in that period drawing on evidence gathered over a number of years – usually, it is worth admitting at the outset, in an ancillary way to recovery of evidence on the contemporary Welsh Left.
The obvious associations between the Conservative Party and the Welsh are based in general on religious affiliation – Anglican, in the main –, business and commercial enterprise, and gender. Many conservative-voting or conservative-supporting Welsh in the late-nineteenth or early twentieth centuries were shopkeepers, were those involved in the production or sale of alcohol, worshipped in the Established Church, or were women. They were not, on the whole, enthusiasts for Home Rule or the Welsh nation. As Kenneth O. Morgan writes, displaying his contempt ‘throughout the 1880s and 1890s, in debates on a variety of issues, Conservative spokesmen monotonously maintained that “there was no such place as Wales”’. And yet, perhaps more so than their Liberal counterparts, certainly in Cardiff, it was the Conservative Party that absorbed a sense of civic purpose and set about modelling the ‘Welsh Metropolis’ into a city deserving of its place in the wider British realm (and Empire). Where Welsh Liberals stuck closely to their Gladstonian ethic of liberty, retrenchment, and reform, and were rigid in their desire for fiscal prudence, Welsh Conservatives adapted Chamberlainite ideas of civic purpose for their needs. The irony, as Martin Daunton pointed out several decades ago, was that when the ‘New Liberals’ began to emerge in Cardiff in the 1890s they often found themselves siding with the Conservatives on matters of progressivism, interventionism rather than fiscal retrenchment, and a worldly attitude.
This is not to portray the Conservatives in an overly rose-tinted manner, but it is to recognise that the positive perception of the Liberal Party amongst Welsh historians, not least for its fairly rabid nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century, is a rather partial picture. In certain aspects of political activity, such as the engagement of young people and women, the Conservative Party adopted techniques that would later find a place in the Labour Party, the Communist Party, and Plaid Cymru, notably the use of sport and popular culture to appeal to would-be activists. The Junior Imperial League, founded in 1906 as part of the Conservative Party’s response to their heavy electoral defeat by the Liberals in that year’s general election, is the prime example. It was created with an aim of generating ‘a practical interest in political work and organisation amongst the younger members of the Conservative and Unionist Party’, but soon developed into something wider than a training ground for activist politics. Alongside the JIL were the Young Britons, the cadet organisation, and the women’s organisations who took responsibility for looking after the younger members of the party.
Those familiar with the growth of popular politics will recognise several obvious influences: the Clarion organisation from within labour circles, the boy scouts, the Primrose League, and the club movement. Certainly, the Conservatives were already very familiar with the technique of appealing to working men through their clubs. Although often dismissed by Welsh historians as mere drinking dens, it is nevertheless clear that the workingmen’s conservative club offered a range of social activities from billiards and skittles to team sports and cycling, and provided ample opportunities for workers to compete in leagues under the Conservative banner. It may well be a stretch of the evidence to suggest that this allied with voting habits, however, although there is clearly scope for a more focused study of those identified as playing for Conservative cricket, football, or baseball teams. Elsewhere, I’ve argued of the Labour Party that in areas where its political advance was frustrated this kind of social activity helped to maintain party cohesion and purpose outside of election cycles and it may well be true of the Conservatives as well.
To return our attention to the Junior Imperial League, then. The earliest Welsh branches were formed a few years after the League was established in 1906. The oldest I’ve found so far was set up in Cardiff sometime before 1910, although a precise date has been more difficult to determine. Unsurprisingly, Cardiff – and to a lesser extent St Fagans – would form the epicentre of the Welsh JIL, encouraged both by the presence of prominent aristocrats who provided considerable patronage and by a strong Conservative-voting section of the population. This was true of other coastal towns and cities such as Penarth, Swansea, Newport, Aberavon, and Barry. But the JIL certainly had its presence in coalfield politics as well. A club was established in Ferndale in 1912 and after the First World War were find branches in Ystrad Mynach, Caerphilly, Abertridwr, and even Ebbw Vale. That list is hardly exhaustive. Elsewhere in Wales, the JIL emerged in Aberystwyth, Brecon, and Cardigan, and at one point there was a North Wales Federation bringing together branches in Denbigh, Flint, Prestatyn, Colwyn Bay, Conwy, Bangor, and Llandudno. A report published in 1930 recorded as many as seven branches in Flintshire alone with a county-wide membership of 400! That was, of course, in the midst of the county swinging back and forth between the Conservatives and Liberals after 1922. Labour’s membership in Flintshire was just 670, by contrast.
As with all attempts at reaching out beyond core (adult) party membership, the JIL was subject to regular comings and goings. The Llanelli branch, in typical vein, was founded in 1928 but had to be revived at least twice in the 1930s – in 1933 and 1937 – each time taking on a slightly different form. And even in Cardiff, ostensibly the stronghold of this kind of Welsh conservatism, the JIL fell into disarray in the 1930s. Membership returns in 1939 show that there were just 84 members of the JIL across the city, this can be compared with as many as 75 in Jarrow or 105 in the more traditionally conservative territory of Worcester. What seems to have happened was the sudden resignation of the entire executive committee for Wales in 1937 and the destruction of the documentation and correspondence records. Unfortunately, the national records of the JIL held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford provide no indication as to what prompted the resignations. What may be said, however, is that those 84 members, then, represent the rebuilding process, rather than the sum total of JIL development over the course of the interwar years. Indeed, in Monmouthshire that year, it was reported that there were sixteen branches in the county federation with several having been recently reformed or in the process of being reformed. A similar situation pertained in Glamorgan.
The women’s movement was rather more impressive in terms of its membership and stability, and indicative of the relative success of the Conservative appeal – something which became readily apparent after the war. If the details published by branches in the magazine Home and Politics (the national organ of the Conservative Women’s Associations) may be taken as indicative, by the mid-1920s the party were very well organised across the South Wales region. In August 1925, for example, it was recorded that the women’s sections in the Neath constituency had six hundred members with branches in the town itself, at Pontardawe, Ystalyfera, Jersey Marine, Clydach, and Skewen. Nor was Neath necessarily unusual. At Aberdare, the foundation meeting of the women’s conservative section was attended by more than one hundred women with a further seventy joining in its first month of existence. Branches further down the Aberdare valley, at Mountain Ash and Penrhiwceiber, experienced a similar rate of growth. By March 1926, a matter of weeks before the outbreak of the General Strike, the Penrhiwceiber branch had 122 members. On the Mumbles, the branch inaugurated in January 1925 with 16 members grew tenfold over the course of a year, with Swansea also reporting more generally that ‘membership is rapidly increasing’. And even in a Labour-Communist battleground such as Rhondda East, where a Conservative did not stand for parliament between 1929 and 1950, there were seven branches in the constituency’s Women’s Unionist Association.
Organisationally, then, the Conservatives were hardly the minnows that their electoral performance both at the parliamentary and local level suggests. They were astute in recognising the limitations of fiscal retrenchment in the late-nineteenth century and promoted politics as something of interest both to women and to young people. As a group, the Conservatives before the Second World War are more historically interesting than the Liberal Party. At this juncture, it is worth turning our attention to the area that has historically meant that the Tories were left alone by Welsh historians, namely their relative disinterest in the ‘Welsh nation’. Kenneth Morgan offers a rather optimistic recovery of Conservative ‘Welshness’ towards the end of his classic Wales in British Politics, and it is somewhat misleading as well. There were two possible routes out of the Conservative Party by the early 1930s: for those who did develop a certain cultural nationalism, the Welsh Nationalist Party led by Saunders Lewis was ideal, and it was towards Plaid Cymru that HWJ Edwards, author of the notorious The Good Patch, eventually drifted. The other was into the British Union of Fascists, which provided a home for Swansea councillor W. T. Mainwaring-Hughes, and the allied January Club of which Sir Ernest Bennett, National Labour MP for Cardiff Central, was a member.
It was out of the Conservative clubs, notably the Empire Club in Cardiff, and others in Barry and Swansea, that the BUF developed in South Wales. Its ranks were filled, to a large extent, and especially in the coastal towns and cities, with shopkeepers and others of the lower-middle-class who felt just enough of the pinch of the Depression to desire a clear political solution. They were engaged by Oswald Moseley and drawn to him as a passionate and forceful orator whose charm and strength of personality seemed to offer a way forward. They were able to reconcile overt patriotism and nationalism with an anti-war stance (invariably favouring Nazi Germany and General Franco) and insisted on putting Britain first. During the Spanish Civil War, the BUF used slogans like MILK FOR BRITISH BABIES NOT SPANISH ONES in an effort to counter the fundraising efforts of the pro-republican Left. Their undoing, at least locally, was the turn to anti-Semitism. It cost them their prospective parliamentary candidate in Swansea, led to clear distancing from the previously supportive Italian consulates, the support that had been garnered amongst the normally Conservative-supporting rank and file in the branches, and left only the Merthyr Tydfil branch (composed largely of former Communists) to mount anything like a significant political charge. And then votes were counted in scores rather than in hundreds and thousands.
With the withering away of the BUF in the late-1930s – by the end of 1937 it had all but disappeared in South Wales – the only party drawing right-wing nationalist support away from the Conservatives was Plaid Cymru. In the earlier part of the decade, the BUF had clearly fought with the Welsh nationalists over this (admittedly small) territory. In the pages of the fascist press it is possible to find both antagonistic visions of ‘narrow nationalism’ and a more enthusiastic embrace of quasi-devolutionary models of power. Or as HWJ Edwards put it, ‘the beginnings of non-state corporativism’. That was what drew him to Plaid Cymru, Edwards claimed, although he could just as easily have moved towards the BUF. Nor did the similarities stop at economic ideas, there was the admiration for the continental right, which raised eyebrows, and there was the anti-war stance sustained even into the Second World War. The latter, prone to misinterpretation, to provide the most positive gloss, is surely at the heart of the accusation that Plaid Cymru was the ‘Fascist Party of Wales’. Whatever one’s own thoughts on the veracity of that claim, it is absolutely true that for some in Wales (and here I don’t mean detractors) the political differences between Plaid Cymru and the British Union of Fascists were narrow enough to come down to a coin toss over membership. For them, Plaid Cymru was not yet the Fascist Party of Wales but it had the potential to be.
Mainwaring-Hughes would later write of his embarrassment at his dalliance with the BUF in the 1930s and sought to minimise the extent of his involvement. He would eventually swing back to the Conservatives and remained a councillor in Swansea for several decades and for a time was chair of the Swansea West Conservative Association. Edwards, on the other hand, continually sought to justify his reactionary politics even going so far as to write a personal testament in the mid-1970s with a foreword from non-other than Enoch Powell. He would also form part of a fringe element within Plaid Cymru – continuity Saundersites, if you like – that provided ready ammunition to the party’s detractors and were a source of much annoyance to those who tried to position the nationalist movement as Liberal in political outlook. Welsh conservatism was always this complex, it was a politics of union rather than nation, a politics of church rather than chapel, of civic consciousness rather than world-weary introspection and retrenchment.
To read the Welsh past through conservative sources – and I don’t mean just the Western Mail or the Monmouthshire Merlin – is to peer into a world that is quite different from that which normally dominates the literature. It is a world, at times, dominated by tea parties and cricket matches, by Anglican communion, and by flag waving. But as this blog has hopefully demonstrated, it tells us something about political activism that reference to the Liberal Party cannot explain; it offers clear insight into the complex ways in which Welsh nationalism developed in the 1930s and what it might have been in other circumstances; and above all it draws attention to the origins of some present-day dilemmas. Not the least of which is the consistent willingness of the dominant party of Wales, whomever they happen to be, to allow itself to be drawn into banal nationalism and a world-rejecting ethic that panders a little too readily to ideas of what the nation has been rather than what it might be. Such parties seem prone to being replaced.